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My TIFF 2006 Recap

A big surprise was the number of very commercial, audience-friendly films that I saw, and that those films were among the best, most rewarding films I saw.
The Host
Bong Joon-ho’s The Host

For those of you wondering why I haven’t written any reviews of the movies I watched at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, the truth is that I have been writing reviews. However, I’ve been posting them all over on Twitch, as part of their exhaustive festival coverage. It’s all part of a long-standing arrangement between Todd Brown and myself: in exchange for a free place to stay, I write reviews for him. (I personally think I have the better end of the deal.)

In all, I watched a total of 23 movies, which worked out to approximately three films a day — which is just about right for me. While there were no films that came out of leftfield to just blow me away as in years past (e.g., Save The Green Planet, 9 Souls), this year’s line-up was quite solid. A big surprise was the number of very commercial, audience-friendly films that I saw, and that those films were among the best, most rewarding films I saw.

The following is a brief recap of each film I watched, along with links to any full-length reviews I might have written for Twitch.

HANA

A good deal more audience-friendly and mainstream than his previous films (the lovely and acclaimed Afterlife and Nobody Knows), Hirokazu Kore-eda’s film about an inept samurai trying to avenge his father’s death and falling in with a bunch of peasants in the city’s slum is still a pleasure to watch. It’s full of lively characters, solid performances, and a surprising amount of genuinely funny humor. Ostensibly a samurai film, HANA thoroughly subverts the genre’s conventions time and again, and throws in some splendid references to the legendary 47 Ronin, to deliver a moral, pacifist message that is neither preachy nor pedantic. (My Twitch Review)

Fido

I’m a little reluctant to say too much about Fido, as I had to leave early due to a splitting headache. But based on what I saw, it seemed to me that the film, which follows a boy and his zombie through a picture-perfect gated community parodying much of 1950s Americana kitsch, was something of a one-note joke. Yes, there were some very funny sequences, such as the Lassie reference, but after awhile, it was the same joke over and over again. Of course, everything have been subverted in the end, and may just be talking out of my butt.

Lights in the Dusk

Aki Kaurismaki’s latest follows a hapless night watchment who gets mixed up with a femme fatale and is framed for a jewel heist. All of the usual noir elements are there, but the film is so dry and stoic that most will probably find it interminable. I, on the other hand, enjoyed the absurd humor that the film’s dryness and aping of noir stereotypes created, and I found several of the film’s images to be quite stunning. (My Twitch Review)

Brand Upon The Brain!

Personally, I really enjoyed this, the first Guy Maddin film I’ve ever seen. Trying to describe this feverish film is somewhat difficult in just a sentence or two — just think budding lesbianism, Oedipal overtones, and an orphanage where the owners suck out orphan brain juice to stay young — but suffice to say, it’s easily the strangest film I’ve seen in a long time. However, I easily enjoyed the experience of the film — which included live orchestral accompaniment, foley artists, narrator, and a ​“castrati” — ten times more. Definitely one of the most unique cinematic experiences I’ve ever had.

The Host

Bong Joon-ho’s The Host has all of the trappings of your typical monster movie, but whereas most monster movies focus on the beastie (in this case, a giant mutant salamander) and the carnage it wreaks, The Host instead focuses on a dysfunctional family who bands together to save one of their own from the monster’s clutches. The film juggles a lot — big monster scares, action, humor, tragedy, social and political commentary — and does so incredibly well, always keeping the audience on their toes. (My Twitch Review)

The Fall

Easily the most visually opulent film of the fest, Tarsem’s The Fall ultimately suffers from an over-reliance on its impressiveness and director Tarsem’s constant need for visual flair. As such, the film ends up drowning in its own excess, which is a shame, because the premise is intriguing and the performances are quite strong. See it for the eye candy, which falls somewhere between Terry Gilliam, Ron Fricke’s Baraka, and a National Geographic special, and you might be pleasantly surprised. (My Twitch Review)

Hula Girls

Without a doubt, the most commercial, sentimental film of the fest, and also one of the best. Based on a true story, Hula Girls follows the ​“ragtag group of misfits come together, overcome adversity, and save the town while learning valuable life lessons” storyline to a ​“T”. In this case, the misfits are young girls from a northern Japanese town who struggle to learn hula dancing in order to save the town (seriously!). But it does it so well, and with such humor, warmth, and sympathetic characters, that only the most cynical won’t be cheering while brushing away a tear or two at the film’s end. (My Twitch Review)

Rescue Dawn

Warner Herzog’s films have always focused on men driven to the extremes of human nature, and what could be more extreme than a man escaping from a prison camp? Rescue Dawn is a strong film, no doubt about it, with solid performances from Christian Bale and Steve Zahn(!), but to be honest, this is Herzog we’re talking about. And so I was bracing myself for something a good deal more intense and disturbing. (My Twitch Review)

Jade Warrior

A serious kung-fu film blending Chinese and Finnish mythology sounds like it would be, well, a lot of fun. Unfortunately, the filmmakers didn’t quite seem to realize that when making the film. The film is beautifully shot, and the blending of mythologies actually works quite well, but the film is so serious, so melancholy, and so wrapped up in themes of fate and doomed love that it becomes something of a labor to watch. And for a kung-fu film, there’s surprisingly little kung-fu (though what little is in there is pretty neat).

Macbeth

One of the only disappointments of the fest for me. The premise — turning Shakespeare’s classic play into an edgy, ultra-violent Melbourne gangster film — has lots of promise, but this film is all flash and nothing else. The Shakespeare dialog just seems like yet another one of the film’s excesses, and there’s something very laughable about seeing heavily-armed gangsters climb out of Hummers dressed like they just walked off a Milan runway, only to quote the Bard’s words. And don’t get me started on the witches. (My Twitch Review)

Everything’s Gone Green

At the risk of losing indie cred, I’ll be honest: I’ve never read anything by Douglas Coupland (despite meaning to). But that didn’t stop me from really enjoying Everything’s Gone Green. The storyline follows a lovable slacker on the verge of turning 30 who has to start making ​“big” decisions about what he wants from life, and offbeat escapades ensue.

It’s something we’ve seen many times from many other films, and sometimes falls into the same pitfalls. However, the Vancouver setting breathes some new life into the story (thanks to some humorous references to Vancouver’s career as Hollywood’s stand-in for America), the script is very strong (if sometimes a tad pretentious), the humor is deft and plentiful, and the performances are all engaging, especially the two leads.

The Island

I was expecting this, a film about a monk who has struggled for 30 years with the guilt over an act committed during WWII, to be very dark and very austere. And so I was pleasantly surprised at the light flourishes of humor that popped up here and there, without undermining the central storyline of the monk’s penitence. Also worth nothing is the film’s matter-of-fact, almost Bresson-esque treatment of the supernatural and the monk’s spiritual abilities, as well as the beautiful, rugged scenery and lovely score. The ending is a little too neat and tidy, but that’s a very minor quibble. (My Twitch Review)

The Namesake

Watching the trailer, you’d think this was all about a young Indian man struggling with and rebelling against his cultural identity, only to learn a valuable life lesson. However, as much of the film, if not more, is devoted to his parents, their relationship, and their own struggles to reconcile their Indian upbringing with American culture. Which means the film meanders a little here and there, but also means that it is full of beautiful human moments, including a fabulous portrait of a lifelong, committed marriage.

I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone

I think I might have taken the wrong route to discover Tsai Ming-liang’s films; first Goodbye, Dragon Inn and now I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone, which are apparently his two most austere films. The film follows three extremely alienated individuals in Kuala Lumpur as they fumble towards some semblance of relationship, sometimes with eachother and sometimes with equally alienated individuals around them. To describe Tsai’s film as ​“static” would be a vast understatement, and though his fixed camera allows for some amazing shots and visual layouts, the slowness of the plot and the blankness of the characters means there’s precious little to resonate emotionally with me.

Times and Winds

I skipped Cashback to watch this, one of the most beautiful films of the fest. The storyline, which follows two young boys as they chafe under the pressure of their fathers, can be a bit taxing and portentous at times. However, the moments where director Reha Erdem’s themes crystallize, themes of generational conflict between fathers and sons, and their sons, result in some truly gutwrenching scenes. And even when Times and Winds’ plot is just sort of ambling along, it’s easy to sink into the rhythms of rural Turkish life, and caught up in the gorgeous panoramic shots. (My Twitch Review)

Quelques Jours En Septembre

This Juliette Binoche-starring film was billed as a high-voltage tale of espionage, betrayal and financial hijinks, which I think was a slight case of over-selling. Sure, there’s some espianoge and hijinks, but it’s not all that high-voltage. Actually, it’s more like a road trip film about a dysfunctional family, where Binoche’s secret agent tries to escort two bickering children to meet with their secret agent father (Nick Nolte, grizzled as ever) one last time.

Any suspense that might have been had by the film’s pre-September 11 setting is always undercut by the awkward humor, which is best characterized by John Turturro’s silly, poetry-reciting hitman who always calls his psychoanalyst after every murder. (My Twitch Review)

Alatriste

The most expensive film to ever come out of Spain, Alatriste shows its budget in every gorgeous, Velazquez-inspired frame. Unfortunately, the film attempts to condense an entire series’ worth of novels into a single film, and the results are meandering and unfocused to say the least.

The film’s biggest weakness is a lack of a single, central narrative. Instead, it’s a bunch of narratives spread out over the years that bump up next to eachother, resulting in a film that builds up no dramatic steam and ends with a climax that lacks any emotional ​“oomph”. Viggo Mortensen gives his usual strong performance, but the script has nothing for him to do but scowl, glower, and occasionally swing his sword. (My Twitch Review)

Pan’s Labyrinth

Guillermo Del Toro’s companion piece to 2001’s wonderful The Devil’s Backbone may look like a whimsical little coming-of-age story about a child and the adventures she has with some cute forest creatures. In reality, it’s a dark, violent, sometimes sadistic tale about innocence and evil. In other words, Pan’s Labyrinth is one of the best fairy tales to have come out in a long time.

Del Toro is one of the most imaginative directors working today, as the film’s fabulous sets, effects, and costumes will readily attest. However, he never loses sight of the story, which follows a young girl’s attempts to prove herself the heir of a magical kingdom while facing the brutality of fascist Spain and her evil stepfather. The film’s blend of fantasy and reality leaves everything up to the viewer’s imagination, and the end is one of the most tragic and bittersweet — and satisfying — finales of the year.

Bliss

The title of Sheng Zhimin’s latest film is something of a misnomer, as there’s not really a shred of bliss in the entire film. Rather, it’s a 96-minute trudge through the lives of various broken individuals that begins when an older man has to find a grave for his former wife — much to his current wife’s chagrin. Meanwhile, their youngest is getting pulled back into his old gang and their distant older son’s marriage is frigid to say the least.

There are individual scenes that are beguiling, such as when the oldest son begins reconnecting with his father, or the troubled younger son begins falling for a pretty co-worker, and the film maintains a dreamlike tone thanks to Wang Junbo’s cinematography and An Wei’s ambient soundtrack. However, there’s precious little resolution when all is said and done, and the characters ultimately remain remote and detached.

Election 1+2

In the past, Johnnie To always left me underwhelmed. His films looked great, and his action sequences were topnotch, but his films were also hampered by underwritten plots, unsympathetic characters, and absurd, awkward humor. Not so with Election 1+2, one of the best gangster epics in recent memory. The films — which really should be watched together — chronicle the attempts of various men to gain leadership of the powerful Wo Sing triad.

To doesn’t pull any punches, and portrays Hong Kong’s Triads as truly evil, violent organizations that corrupt everyone around them. He’s helped by some very strong performances, including Simon Yam as a gangleader that’s more sadistic than he seems, and Louis Koo as a gangster trying to go straight, only to get pulled back in. Those expecting the high octane sequences of To’s previous films will probably disappointed. Election 1+2 is all slowburn, and yet when things do come to a boil, they hit like a nihilistic sledgehammer to the gut. (My Twitch Review)

Renaissance

It took seven years to make Renaissance and you can see all of that time in the film’s stunning black-and-white animation. However, given all that time, it would’ve been nice if the filmmakers had spent more than just a few months on the storyline, which is riddled with sci-fi and noir cliches. The film attempts a few twists here and there and throws in some backstory for its main character — a hardnosed police officer trying to find a kidnapped scientist in Paris circa 2054 — but such attempts are largely perfunctory.

Renaissance is further proof that modern animation techniques can hold their own against traditional cel animation. Now, if only folks would make more films of actual merit or depth with such tools.

Invisible Waves

Sigh… this one just pained me. Last Life in the Universe is one of my favorite films in recent years, and so I was definitely looking forward to Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s latest. I tried to lower my expectations and keep them realistic, but even so, Invisible Waves disappointed on almost every level.

The film could’ve been a moody, atmospheric film about guilt and loyalty. The storyline, about a hitman who heads to Thailand after killing his mobster boss’ wife (who also happened to be his lover), seems to angle that way. But the under-developed script, lack of any emotional core, poorly-utilized characters, and focus on quirky humor gets in the way. On top of that, the film boasts some incredibly gloomy, murky cinematography, which is all the more disappointing because it’s by Christopher Doyle, one of the world’s finest. (My Twitch Review)

Exiled

What a way to end the fest. After the disappointing Invisible Waves, I needed something to cleanse my palate, and Johnnie To’s Exiled was just the thing. There were moments where it looked like To was going to lapse back into the flaws of previous films, but overall, To pulls off a brilliant ​“heroic bloodshed” movie.

Four hitmen arrive to ​“deal with” a former colleague, who persuades them to help him do one last job to provide for his wife and child before he gets offed. The film is a blast from nearly start to finish, with plenty of solid action sequences, fantastic acting (Anthony Wong and Francis Ng truly shine), some truly funny sequences, the requisite melodrama, and of course, enough style and flair to fuel five movies.


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